Needle Of Death by Bert Jansch

This song is a masterpiece by the man Neil Young has called the Jimi Hendrix of the acoustic guitar. It's a great example of the Jansch guitar style, and the way he typically embellishes standard major and minor chords with extra 6ths and 9ths to create a rich, mysterious sound.

Technically there's nothing super tricky here, and you should be able to have a good stab at this one if you know your fingerstyle basics. The secret here, as with many fingerstyle folk pieces, is to keep a steady thumb going throughout, playing 4 notes per bar. The other notes can be played with either your index, middle, or ring fingers - there are no rules here,  just see what feels best.

For this version I went back to the original track and listened really closely to try and capture all the details of the guitar part. The recording is quite lo-fi and it's a little bit hard to hear exactly what's going on, especially in the chorus, since the guitar is a bit hidden by the vocal. The version I've come up with seems to work and feels right to me. Exactly how Bert plays and fingers certain bits it's impossible to say for certain since I can't seem to find any video footage of the man himself playing the song. This seems a bit odd, as it's one of his most well-known tracks. Perhaps the song was so raw and emotional for him that he didn't like to perform it live much? 

I've written my version out below which I've put it in the key of A just to keep things simple. Just throw a capo on the 3rd fret if you want to play it like Bert does. (By all means experiment with placing the capo at other frets or not using one at all to find a key that is comfortable for you to sing in.) I've not written out all of the verses separately as essentially Bert is playing the same thing in each, but there are a few minor variations in emphasis and right-hand patterns as the song progresses.

  • Minor correction: In the video I mistakenly say that bars 5 and 6 are the same. In fact, bar 6 is a tiny bit different and starts with the 6th and 1st strings played together instead of the 6th and 2nd.
  • In the last bar of the verse and the second bar of the chorus the open G string is played - technically a 'wrong' note but really just one of those little notes that creeps in to smooth the gap between chords and happens so fast the ear doesn't pick up on it.
  • In the 3rd verse Bert holds the A6 (no 3rd) chord for an extra bar (when he sings "One grain of pure white snow…").
  •  I've also included an ending which I don't go into in the video. Play this at the end of the final verse. It's got an improvised feel, and Bert switches from major to minor, then ends on an ambiguous sounding A7.

Once you've got the hang of it as written, be sure to loosen up and throw in your own variations. Finally, try and remember it's all about the feel, so don't get too hung up on technical perfection - even Bert sometimes misses the odd note here and there.